King of the Cormorants

Ince Castle seen from the train

A large bird with outstretched wings surveys the farmland from his perch on a tree on the banks of the River Lynher. The wind buffets his back and he holds his position with forceful determination as his wings dry and the fish settle. It is only a stride from the rough scrub land of the river edge to the waving reeds and grasses of the wasteland on the perimeter of Ince's farm. Henry Killigrew strides blithely through the boggy fields and vaults the heavy stone stile into the yard.

Farmer Ince is seated to his second full breakfast, a huge red neckerchief beneath his chin and a gravy sauce dripping from his beard. He is surrounded by four girls with the same black hair and cheeks flushed by the heat of the stove. The chill wind chases them as they go about their many chores in the farmyard. Henry bristles at the injustice of this farmer's over reliance on his daughters. He flaps his arms absently against his sides as he schemes on how best to approach the household.

The door opens quickly and Danielle beckons him in, she smiles at Henry. 'I am to invite you in, Father said. I do hope you haven't come far you look a bit...wet.' Henry takes her in with his black coal eyes and lifting off his hat he slips inside as bidden. 'Ah, a stranger in these parts is not often had especially one walking into my yard on his own without an errand.' He glares at Henry, 'Or have you an errand?'

Henry stands to the side with what he hopes is a gallant wave to one of the girls as a plate is bought before the farmer and a tank of cider.

'Anything for you, sir?' she says shyly.

'Anything for you, sir?' her father echoes. 'This one is not a sir, not as I am aware of anyways. Am I correct or am I correct?'

'Who knows,' says Henry evasively, 'Yes I would like a drink, my mouth appears full of salt and I haven't a scrap of ham for breakfast not as is offered here. This must be rich and fruitful lands you have here, with enough luck to produce four equally beautiful if work and wind touched daughters.'

'Nothing 'as touched my daughters, first person said my land is profit.'

'Oh yes.' Henry leans toward the farmer his pointed beard jutting from his chin and his eyes finding and holding the film before Ince's. 'Your land out toward the cliff is just what I have been searching for and I would like to purchase it.'

'Since when have I sold any of my land, I never said it was for sale and if it was you just said yourself, it would fetch a very high price.'

'Henry Killigrew to you,' he puts out his hand. Farmer Ince ignores him and waves him outside and slowly follows the younger man they look out over the stone stile and into the boggy wasteland that is up for negotiation. Ince sniffs the air and looks out to sea. It is flat and quiet a flock of birds hang their wings in the old mance tree. Farmer Ince makes up his mind and demands thirty sacks of silver and thirty sacks of gold and a lease of three lives for the land and Henry looks at him and pulls at his pointy waxy beard.

'I will not accept anything less,' says Farmer Ince nervously, observing that this strange young man appears to stand in his yard without so much as a sack of belongings.

'What is it you have an excess of?' Henry asks him.

'It would not be advisable to mock me, Killigrew.'

'I have only a certain amount of gold but I will take from you a daughter in marriage.'

'I will need the full amount of gold and silver, enough sacks to fill the pig sty and if you can get it to me by the end of the day you can keep the land as long as you remain married to a daughter of mine.' Thinking it over, he is pleased with his suggestion. This would keep the land tied to the farm and not cut off without a tithe or a connection.

Henry stands tall with his legs spaced wide and strokes his beard. Within the time it took to clear the table the land is sold and Henry strides from the farmyard and over the stile from whence he came. Farmer Ince walks slowly across the yard to the pig shed, an unfamiliar shadow runs across his yard and another up the side of the sty and as he looks up he is puzzled as can be for a tall black tower appears to have grown out of his old field. As he peers over, he blinks as much as usually helps his vision, but it is still there, as are three sister towers and an extravagant castle to hold them. He shakes his head for there seem to be no windows.

Soon after the castle is built the wedding is held for Killigrew and the eldest daughter Danielle, it is a modest affair and she leaves to live in the castle. One month later the strange man with the pointed beard stands once more in Farmer Ince's parlour explaining the sorry news of the untimely death of Danielle and that as part of the bargain he must take another of Ince's daughters for his bride. Now Farmer Ince has always disliked his second daughter Tegan, she is stout and he resents the share she takes of his meat and cheese. He looks at the man before him dressed quite rightly from head to toe in black and nods to Tegan to go take his hand.

A month later a message arrives informing him that Tegan has also died and demanding the farmer hold to his bargain and hand over his third daughter. The farmer who is begrudging the fact that he now has to do much of the work around house and farm with two daughters gone is not so sure he has a good bargain. However his last remaining and youngest daughter Caroline had always been his favourite and he would like to have her for company and she does make the best roast dinner. The third daughter climbs the stone stile and is married to the stranger in the castle.

When the message comes that the third daughter has died and the farmer is obliged to husband over his youngest and favoured daughter the farmer loses his apathy and roars with anger. He offers Henry all the gold and silver back along with the pig if he will take it but he cannot take Caroline she will stay on the farm. Henry does not even stop to consider. He appears at the window at dusk and wraps Caroline in a cloak at pretence of chivalry and takes her to his castle.

At night no light can be seen from outside as the four towers stand another shade within the blackness. Yet inside four candles burn and the four Ince daughters live unbeknown to the others within the towers of the Killigrew castle. Caroline Ince makes the best of the cramped stone room in which she finds herself. She folds her bedclothes and her shawl and dusts the floor with black feathers she finds some days on the floor. The wind grates at the walls and what she thinks must be a flock of circling birds caw at the air as it seeps through the cracks in the hastily built walls. One night Caroline listens as the caws change pitch and  to the sound of the faint screams of childbirth surely not carried all the way from the village in the valley. Her only contact is the post which comes scarcely. One morning she heard a card drop and runs down the winding steps to the flag floor and the door at the bottom of her tower. A single letter sits there and as she turns it over Caroline sees it is addressed to her sister Danielle, lost for a time perhaps. And then Caroline begins to wander, wander where her husband is all the nights he is not with her. The next day Caroline is up and waiting and when the postman comes with the daily letter from her father she is ready for him and taps and calls.

'Let me out.'

'What is wrong Maid?'

'I am locked in.'

'No problem I will get the door open for you. Seems there is a key on the outside inviting any one in. He is easy as anything. There we are.'

With a motion for him to run also, Caroline flees across the fields, over the stile and into the arms of her Father. 'He told me you were dead Caroline.'

'Well I am obviously not am I, father and neither do I believe are my sisters,'

'Oh them.'

'Yes them. Like them or not, father we must rescue them.'

Caroline drags her father down to the village and they raise the alarm to the lord of the manor who gathers a large army and they take themselves up the hill to confront Killigrew in his castle. As they reach the doors, he is just coming out of Caroline's tower, Henry tries to flee but the villagers surround him  whilst others release the imprisoned brides from the castle. As the crowd close in Henry, he is cornered and looks set for a beating. He lifts his arms and changes into a large black bird, his beard a beak, his hair a plume.

'Cormarant,' shouts Ince, 'I should've bloody known it.

'Keep up the chase,' shouts the lord of the manor.

'We must punish him,' the daughters agree as they run after the bird. The villagers heavily armed take pursuit. On the bank of the river Lynher is a large manakin tree where the cormorants come inland to roost and that is where the sisters are headed, followed by the villagers, their father and the lord of the manor all armed and outraged by Killigrew's deception. The postman hands Caroline his shotgun and she fires along with several others. The King of the Cormorants is three times the size of the others and with his wings spread an easy target as Caroline's bullet finds his black heart. The bird lets out an unholy scream and dives along with his family into the Dandy Hole. Caroline feels the arms of the postman fit comfortably about her and Farmer Ince wanders back across his boggy fields hoping there will now be someone handy to cook up a good lunch.


retold by Anna Chorlton

from the family stories of Robert  Keys

  • Saltash